17.04.2012 - 20.04.2012 42 °C
Mumbai is seen by many travellers in India as little more than a rite of passage, somewhere to get in to and out of as quickly as possible. Its true that its hugely over-crowded (more than 17 million people live in the greater Mumbai area), the hotels are expensive, the heat can be oppressive, the smells can be offensive and the odd shape of the city (which is actually an Island) makes transport around it quite difficult, but to write it off as merely a hub would be to miss out on the personality of a city that has several charms of its own to offer.
By the time we arrived in Mumbai we had 3 nights left until our flight, and decided to concentrate our time on the South end of the city. We were staying in the 'Fort' area near to the spectacular Chhatrapati Shivaji train station; a victorian era building that dominates the sky line and is the hub from which a quite staggeringly propostrous 0.9 million people per day pass through. The hotel was towards the grubby end of 'acceptable', but at 20 quid a night it was much cheaper than most of its competition and crucially had a room available – something that many of its competitors did not.
On our first morning we had a few things to post back to England so made our way to the general post office – another victoria-era building which stands very close to the train station and is only marginally less architecturally impressive. As we had a couple of semi-fragile items to post back, we tried to source a box for protection, however the parcel wrapping service (a bloke, a chair, a table, some cloth and a sewing kit) had other ideas – he rolled our items up as tightly as he could into a rugby ball shape, wrapped it in some cloth and set about sewing the whole thing together. Quite what either Royal Mail or my mother will make of it when they see it is anybody's guess, but if the silk painting, postcards and paper mache turtle ornament (yep) all arrive back in one piece then i'll be shocked, surprised and delighted in equal measure.
From the train station/post office area it is a 15 minute walk to the 'Kala Ghoda' area which houses many of the best art galleries in the city and has designated 'pavement galleries' which young and up and coming artists use to showcase their talents to passers by. As well as a smattering of charcoal portrait artists, there were plenty of really interesting mini-exhibitions that warrant fitting into even the tightest tourist itineraries.
A further 15 minutes walk South from Kala Ghoda lies Mumbai's best known tourist attraction – Colaba. From the ageing art-deco cinema at the top of the causeway to the swanky designer shops to the hip cafes to the 5 star hotels to India gate – its an area that oozes character and really warrants a full day to look around and get to grips with. Having read the fantastic book 'Shantaram' a year or so ago, a trip to Leopolds Cafe in Colaba was a must. After the terrorist attack there in 2008 there is a heavy security presence, but that hasn't stopped people going and it was nearly full at 3 in the afternoon when we went. The food was vastly over-priced and not that great, but there was a good mix of people in there, a chilled atmosphere and the big managers chair still exists!
To try and see as much as we could, we booked a 3 hour taxi tour to take us around some of the sights of South Mumbai. Getting shipped from landmark to landmark is not an ideal way of getting to know any city, but with limited time it has its advantages. The tour took in one of Mumbai's slums, which are as intriguing as they are chaotic. Its true that the standard of living is low and disease is rife, but to think of slum-dwellers as tramps with no entrepreneurial spirit or work ethic would be way wide of the mark – most of them are working from dusk till dawn and bring in income that allows them to live without begging. The tour then took in a 'Dhoby Ghat' – a huge outdoor laundrette, harbour road – lined by the sky-scrapers of India's most industrious city and home to chowpatty beach, and then Malabar hill – home to the city's rich and also accommodating the impressive 'hanging gardens' park. Within the park is the infamous 'towers of silence' where deceased persons of the 'Parsi' religion are brought to be covered in oil and left on the roof for the vultures to come and take them to heaven....! and overlooking the park is the residence owned by Anil Ambani which is either wildly eccentric or just plain grotesque depending on your view point. To finish off the tour the driver took us to the small fishing village where the 2008 terrorists landed on a hijacked speedboat where there was nothing particularly interesting to see, except when we were there a 10ft whale shark (I think – any marine boffins may want to correct me) had become beached and had attracted a pretty large gathering to see it.
For our final night in India we decided to move to a hotel near to the aiport, and to 'splash out' (a tenner) on a room with air conditioning. It felt quite apt that the air-conditioning unit was broken and not a small bit ironic that the reason it was broken was not that it would not work, but that it was set too cold, couldn't be turned up and the fan blew at top speed right into our faces. We hid under the covers and tried to sleep but it was no good so we turned the AC off and slept in intense heat until 4am when somebody started making omelettes in the kitchen that was directly behind our paper-thin wall. It was almost as if the country where contrast, contradiction and outrageousness is a daily way of life was saying goodbye with a cheeky wink.
And so that is just about that as far as India is concerned. Two and a half months of the most interesting, ridiculous, exhilarating, educational, heart-warming, heart-breaking and at times emotionally testing months were at an end. Its impossible to do this incredible country justice with mere words; you need to smell it, feel it, embrace it, immerse yourself in it, feel part of it and you need to give it your all. Nowhere I've been is it so true as India that you get out of the experience what you put in. We've learned so much and yet we only spent two and a half months here so really saw very little. So India its not goodbye, but see you next time...